Pavlov’s Dogs

It’s an interesting thing watching my dogs every afternoon. Suddenly aroused about the same time each day, they hear a sound that puts them on alert. The deep hum of the bus that brings my girls home. But it’s not something they’ve been taught. Just something they learned. An association between a certain sound and an event to which they automatically respond with great excitement. Their brains hard-wiring the connection.

Probably everyone knows of Pavlov’s experiments with his dogs. Ringing a bell at the same time as presenting food, so that just on the sound of the bell the dogs would salivate. But the incredible thing is as humans we are no different. We too can learn in this way. In the world of psychology it’s called classical conditioning. An association between something that creates an automatic reaction and something else. Food aversion is a classic example. I’m sure most of us have had the experience of being unable to eat a certain food if we have linked it with the unfortunate event of gastro. For me it was apricots. I remember it well. And it took years before I could eat them again.

But it’s not something we consciously do, is it.

And it happens with chemo too. Again demonstrated by research. The experience of side-effects can set us up for the experience of anticipated side-effects. Those debilitating side-effects that happen before the chemo is even infused. Nausea and vomiting in the hospital carpark for instance. Or at the sight of a needle.

And the most incredible thing is our immune cells learn this too.

Why not take a moment and try getting your head around that.

I saw the reference to the study years ago but it wasn’t until this week I found it again. Searching for years for this incredible piece of research. Twenty women under chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer. They measured the immune function of the women at home a few days before chemo day and then again the morning of infusion. And the results just blow my mind. The women’s immune cells learned somehow that chemo = immune suppression and they responded in anticipation of that happening. On the morning of the chemo, their immune cells became suppressed even before the chemo went in.

If something can demonstrate the importance of engaging your mind in the experience of cancer and cancer treatment, it must be this…

Anticipatory immune suppression and nausea in women receiving cyclic chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. Bovbjerg DH1, Redd WH, Maier LA, Holland JC, Lesko LM, Niedzwiecki D, Rubin SC, Hakes TB. J Consult Clin Psychol. 1990 Apr;58(2):153-7.


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